Ola’s culture problem

Pankaj Mishra February 17, 2017 7 min

The cab aggregator, which has a big employee town hall this evening in Bengaluru, has a problem going up to its CEO’s office

This Valentine’s Day, Ola shared a really interesting gender diversity chart with its employees, leaving some of them shocked.

But the problem with Ola’s work culture goes beyond gender diversity, as I gathered after interviewing nearly two dozen existing and half-a-dozen former employees of Ola  

In a newsletter, a copy of which was reviewed by FactorDaily, Ola said only 18% of its over 5,000 employees were women. A chart published in the newsletter categorised Ola employees according to their marital status and even spelt out the gender ratio.

  • Bachelors: 59%
  • Bachelorettes: 13%
  • Married Males: 23%
  • Married Females: 5%

“This is across all functions, not just tech. And it’s really disturbing,” an employee said on condition of anonymity. To be sure, gender diversity has been an area of concern for many large Indian startups, including Flipkart, as I had pointed out in this Economic Times article in July 2015.

But the problem with Ola’s work culture goes beyond gender diversity, as I gathered after interviewing nearly two dozen existing and half-a-dozen former employees of Ola during the past few months.

The founder and his mentor

Most of the employees I interviewed talked about Ola’s (and its cofounder Bhavish Aggarwal’s) obsession with Uber. The Silicon Valley-based Uber is locked in an intense battle with Ola for the lion’s share of India’s cab hailing market.

“It’s almost like Ola is rivaling Uber even on the work culture front,” said one of its employees (on condition of anonymity), referring to the long work hours and limited work-life balance at the company.

Uber has often been criticised for its culture, with accusations ranging from snooping on its famous riders to even being a sexist workplace.

Some senior executives, who spoke to FactorDaily on condition of anonymity, attributed the recent exits at Ola mainly to cofounder Bhavish Aggarwal and his mentor TVG Krishnamurthy’s management style

An Ola engineer, on condition of anonymity, showed me instances of “goodbye emails” from colleagues when I asked him if attrition was a big issue. “Instead of talking about attrition rates, let me show you the search results for “goodbye,” he said, pointing at his mobile screen, which threw up a few dozen such emails.

Some senior executives, who spoke to FactorDaily on condition of anonymity, attributed the recent exits at Ola mainly to Aggarwal and his mentor TVG Krishnamurthy’s management style. During the past few weeks, Ola has lost its chief financial officer Rajiv Bansal, chief marketing officer Raghuvesh Sarup, chief operating officer (offline initiatives) Anuj Bhargava and engineering head Sriram V Iyer.

Last month, Ola quietly appointed Krishnamurthy to its board of directors — its highest decision making body. Krishnamurthy, according to some company insiders, is a close lieutenant to Aggarwal, who attends meetings across departments, from business to product and even engineering.

“If you get his ears, your ideas can travel to Bhavish,” said an executive.

“The good thing about Aggarwal’s leadership style is that no one is spared and there’s no favouritism,” said an executive. “In fact, the ruthlessness helps people working directly with him bond better.”

Some candidates who interviewed with Ola for jobs gave instances of the top management, especially Aggarwal, “not valuing their time.”

Some candidates who interviewed with Ola for jobs gave instances of the top management, especially Aggarwal, “not valuing their time”

One of the candidates, who interviewed Ola for a chief experience officer (CXO)’s job a few weeks ago, said he was made to wait for hours on the day of the scheduled appointment with Aggarwal. “At the end of the day, he didn’t even meet me,” the person said, requesting anonymity.

A headhunter who has worked with Ola in the past said it’s really tough to get candidates to interview with Ola.

“A Twitter engineer recently turned down the offer after realising he’s signing up for ‘an Uber-like’ workplace,” the headhunter said.

“A Twitter engineer recently turned down the offer after realising he’s signing up for ‘an Uber-like’ workplace”
— a headhunter who works with Ola  

For its part, Ola has also hired some top engineers, including former InMobi executive Sanjay Kharb and ex-Cellworks chief technology officer (CTO) Pranav Tiwari over the past few weeks, after the recent exits from its engineering team.

But, the challenge really is to retain top talent in a workplace seen as abrasive, pressure cooker-like and with high levels of stress, company insiders and talent acquisition executives said, requesting anonymity.

Some industry insiders I spoke to said this could be a classic case of a fast-growing startup led by an ambitious, aggressive founder.

“There’s nothing unusual,” said a founder of one of India’s top 10 startups. “The gig economy has its stresses.”

But the problem of culture cannot be blamed on the gig economy alone, as Arun Sundararajan, an NYU Stern professor, argued in his article titled ‘What Airbnb gets about culture that Uber doesn’t‘ in November 2014.

As Ola grows beyond just being a small startup, it will increasingly face some reality checks. And for gig economy businesses, contractors are a key piece in building the company culture. Ola is already facing some backlash from its contracted drivers, as we reported earlier today.

The big town hall

Later today, Ola employees have been invited for a town hall meeting with the company’s founders — Aggarwal and Ankit Bhati. The venue is the Grand Ballroom of the Leela Palace Hotel in Bengaluru, and a Google Doc asking employees to direct their questions at either of the founders has been circulated.

“This is the first time they are allowing anonymous questions,” said an Ola employee, requesting anonymity.

“I hope things change for good beyond just a change in the venue, which is a five star hotel this time”
— an Ola employee  

Last year, when Ola faced a huge backlash from activists on a sexist ad campaign that had a male character compare costs of keeping a girlfriend versus riding an Ola cab, some employees were concerned.

My girlfriend costs Rs 525 per km but Ola Micro costs just Rs 6 per km.

In an employee town hall around the time the ad campaign ran, an Ola employee asked if the company knew it was hurting the brand.

In the same town hall, employees were asked if the ad was indeed sexist. When some of them raised their hands flagging sexism, pat came the reply. “My wife didn’t find the ad offensive, so I am not sure what you’re talking about,” an employee recalled a top Ola executive saying at the town hall.

On Friday evening, Ola employees will again be part of a town hall. Some of those who spoke on conditions of anonymity praised the management for allowing anonymous questioning.

As Ola gears up for today’s town hall at The Leela Palace in Bengaluru, it needs to rethink its workplace culture and everything that makes it or breaks it  

“I hope things change for good beyond just a change in the venue, which is a five star hotel this time,” the employee said.

The problem of culture is not unique to Ola. Its unicorn peer Flipkart too has been going through a churn, thanks to three top-level changes within a year. Since Kalyan Krishnamurthy (not related to Ola’s Krishnamurthy) replaced Binny Bansal as the Flipkart CEO, a number of top executives have quit and several existing employees are finding it tough to cope with too many changes. In past one year, nearly a dozen top Flipkart executives have quit.

Ola is still a young company with lots of learnings and changes ahead. Clearly, it’s not in a situation where Ola can be described completely as “a bruising workplace,” the way an NYTimes article called Amazon last year.

But, if this sample size of over 24 employees is anything to go by, Ola needs to rethink its overall workplace and everything that makes it, or breaks it.

At the time of publishing this, I had not heard back from Ola on a bunch of questions I had for the company including on Aggarwal’s leadership style, the company’s work culture, the exact role of Krishnamurthy, and its attrition. We will update this post after hearing back from Ola.

Lead visual: Nikhil Raj


Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.